Of tunes and pipers—more on patriarchy and “responsibility”

In the last post, I wrote: “What we didn’t realize is that in reality (and also, in Islamic law…), responsibility and power go hand in hand. What was marketed to us as freedom from responsibility ended up meaning lots of responsibilities for wives and mothers, but little actual power or resources to deal with them. And, lots of blame for failing to live up to idealized standards of “good” wife- and motherhood.”

As my grandmother would have said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Aye, that’s the way it is in reality, lassies. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scottish_piper.jpg)

And that was the way it was. Men had responsibilities, but also the power to decide what the scope of these responsibilities was, how they were going to meet them, and when they had met them “adequately.” Which meant that, in effect, we women were always in the business of taking up the slack on their behalf. But we didn’t derive much if any power to determine the course of our own lives (or to make the lives of our children better) from doing so. If we managed to do it well, then we were just doing what was expected, because a “good wife” was supposed to cover her husband’s shortcomings. And if we didn’t manage to take up the slack , despite trying—or, god forbid! we got tired of doing so and voiced our objections to the way things were going—then this meant that whatever happened was our fault.

So, for example: The men were supposed to be responsible for providing adequate housing, food, clothing and medical care for his wife (or wives) and children. As well as for any other close female relatives (mothers, unmarried sisters, etc) who didn’t have anyone else to provide for them. Earning a living and providing for the children was not ever supposed to be a legal responsibility placed on women’s shoulders.

In reality, this could work out any number of ways. One scenario that I saw play out in several people’s lives (including my own) went as follows: Husband had long had his eye on a particular kind of well-paying and very respectable job. He made repeated attempts to get such a job. However, statistically speaking, there were many more people applying for these jobs than positions. Most people who were applying for them had the sense to have a Plan B (if not a Plan C), employment-wise. But husband was not one of those prudent people. He didn’t land the job of his dreams, so he wouldn’t settle into a lesser job, not even one that had a decent salary and benefits. He worked at a series of temporary and part-time jobs (which had no benefits), and in between those jobs, he would turn to unemployment benefits or welfare.

And it was up to his wife to make it all work. To manage to make whatever money he brought in that month cover all of the family’s needs. I was one of the wives who did the “stretch-every-last-dollar” dance in the second half of every month. I’d buy food at the dollar store,  stuff that the kids liked and saw as treats, such as cheap “blueberry” muffin mix  (and that I vainly hoped might possibly contain some nutritional value). All so that I could stretch the money we had to the end of the month, while trying not to let the kids realize that we were running very low indeed.

In those years, I developed the habit of scanning the ground whenever I walked outdoors. Looking for money, that I would use to spend on groceries. I’d pick up change. The kids and I made a game out of it, but it was serious. We were perennially short of money.

Our kids hardly ever saw a dentist growing up (and nor did we, for that matter)—there was no way that we could afford it. When someone was sick, and they needed medicine, this was a problem, because we had no drug benefits either. I was nearly always the one to take the kids to the doctor (even if my husband was home and able to do so), so it would be me having to explain that no, we don’t have a drug plan, so could they please prescribe the least expensive brand. It got so that the doctors at our local clinic knew to offer us any free samples that they had lying around, when our kids needed medicine. Humiliating.

We never managed to save anything. Not even for the kids’ education. Because any surplus from one month would most probably get spent during a “lean” month. Or it would be needed to buy pricier but necessary things such as shoes or winter coats (oh, how I used to dread the onset of fall, and I’d be hoping against hope that at least some of the kids hadn’t grown out of their winter boots or coats… and that that pair of boots that didn’t fit kid X didn’t have holes in it, so kid Y might be able to wear it….) Anyway, you can’t have savings if you go on welfare. Unless you’re going to lie.

The husbands I knew who behaved like this didn’t see anything wrong, unfair or irresponsible about this behavior. They were (as far as they were concerned) doing their best to provide for their families. That they hadn’t managed to land the sorts of jobs that paid well, and provided a consistent income along with benefits was the fault of the system, they said.

They saw no problem with lying to welfare, either. These were the kuffar, so why should we tell them the truth? My ex used to get really angry with me when I would refuse to lie, and when I would say that having to go on welfare is humiliating. Why (he would rage) do you care so much about the money of the kuffar? The money that is from our taxes? [We were too poor to have to pay taxes, aside from sales tax, but anyway…] And since lots of people cheat welfare, why do you think that they will come after us??

Wives were expected to be grateful, and to manage whatever income their husbands brought in wisely and thriftily. (Which, when the husband won’t make a budget or stick to it, is pretty difficult… but anyway.) There was no recognition that living from pay-check to pay-check is really exhausting, stressful and humiliating for us—especially as it went on and on, year after year. If the money wasn’t going far enough, it was probably our fault. We must be spending too much. We needed to be more careful.

But there was no need for husbands to be more careful with, say, their phone bills, which were often sky-high. It was their money. They earned it. So they could decide to spend it on things they wanted, even if they couldn’t really afford it.

A “smart” woman (according to my ex’s ethnic community, as well as many conservative Muslims we knew) should be able to deal with such circumstances cheerfully and efficiently. She needs to spend carefully. Or (with her husband’s permission, of course) she might work part-time in order to lessen her husband’s onerous burden of providing for the family in this kafir society. Naturally, whatever money she made would be used for the family, so it wasn’t “hers,” and of course, working didn’t mean that she would be any less responsible for the housework and the kids, or that she wasn’t bound to serve her husband and obey him to the same degree as if he was the sole provider. If he was kind enough to help out with the kids or housework a bit more because she was working, then he was a saintly man indeed, and she needed to be even more grateful to him.

A “smart” woman who worked needed to do so in a way that wouldn’t emasculate her husband. So, she should work as unobtrusively as possible, and she should try her best not to inconvenience her husband by her work schedule, or put him in the position where he would have to take a more active role with the kids or do housework (beyond  “helping” occasionally, if he felt like it). She could carry out this remarkable balancing act by working from home (such as by babysitting). Or, she could work night-shifts, so that her kids would be asleep while she was at work, and they’d be at school while she slept, and she’d be at home in the afternoon when they came home from school—and the house would be clean, and dinner would be on the stove, and she could help them with their homework… before putting them to bed and heading off to work.

Working also didn’t mean that her husband didn’t still have (and exercise) his patriarchal prerogatives. So, he could unilaterally decide that he needed to travel back to his homeland in order to see his parents. Sure, that would mean that he would need money for plane tickets and other travel expenses, and his family would have to make do without the several weeks pay that he would likely have otherwise earned, but it was his right. He needed to maintain ties with his parents (an Islamic duty, after all), and he was a man. He was tired of working, and he needed a rest. Or, he could decide to look for another wife. After all, the wife he had was partially self-supporting already, and try as she might, she didn’t have as much time for him as before, and she wasn’t getting any younger. He was a man, and it was his right. His duty, in fact—after all, he didn’t want to fall into the temptation to commit adultery.

And if a man went off and did these sorts of things—traveled and left his family in a very difficult financial position, or decided to marry another woman? It was assumed to be the wife’s fault. If she had been truly “smart,” she would have found a way to gently convince (without nagging, of course—god forbid!) her husband not to travel at this time. If she was “smart,” then she would have figured out her husband’s psychological workings, and found a way to keep his eyes on her and her children’s welfare alone.  And she would be keeping the house so clean, and cooking the food so well, and entertaining his visitors so perfectly, and raising their children so carefully, and serving him and his every need (sexual and otherwise) so attentively, that the thought of marrying another wife wouldn’t even have entered his head.

So, if a man was a less-than-ideal provider, or a less-than-responsible protector, then it was probably… the wife’s fault, at least mostly. She wasn’t playing her role correctly. Sure, her husband wasn’t exactly perfect either, but he was after all a man. With a “smart” wife, even the most lacklustre husband will shine. Or so the theory went.

Looking back at all this, what particularly strikes me is how men are let off the hook at almost every point. Men have the responsibility to provide and protect. Yet, if they make a half-assed effort in that direction that doesn’t quite do the job, then all sorts of excuses will be made for them. (Especially if they spend their “spare” time doing Islamic work—then they’re god-fearing brothers for sure.) A woman married to such a man must be grateful for what he is doing for her, and take up the slack as much as possible, while gently encouraging him to do even better (without nagging!). Really, whatever efforts a man would make to fulfill his responsibilities were to be applauded.

But a half-assed attempt to be an obedient wife and a good mother is nowhere near acceptable, and if the marriage falls apart, or the kids don’t turn out well, the fault is… hers. A slapdash wife and mother wouldn’t be given points for at least making an effort, she’d be roundly condemned as an impious, neglectful woman who wasn’t taking her god-given responsibilities seriously.

Men’s sexual desires provide them with status and power. They have the right to demand sex from their wives, to expect that their wives will dress attractively for them at home, to unilaterally divorce their wives, and to practice polygamy. Men whose sexual desires aren’t met are being wronged by their wives, and it’s understandable that such men will be tempted to sin.

Women’s sexual desires are hardly spoken of, but to the extent that they are acknowledged, they don’t provide women with any excuses whatsoever to fall short in their family responsibilities or in any other way. In fact, women’s sexual desires are seen as an important reason why women need to be “protected” (i.e. controlled) by men at all stages of their lives.

Men have the right to make decisions about their lives unilaterally. They can travel. They can associate with whoever they want. Their time is theirs. They can spend hours hanging around the mosque, or sitting in the living room watching tv, or drinking tea and talking politics with their (male) friends, while their wife serves, deals with the kids, and cooks dinner.

We women didn’t have these freedoms. And at the same time, we were being constantly reminded how lucky we were to be “protected” and “provided for”… unlike non-Muslim women.

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  1. #1 by x_x on July 10, 2012 - 12:51 pm

    Totally different circumstances for me, same exact story. Damn. I wouldn’t have the energy to write out what happened to me. It’s really a blessing to see my own struggles articulated on this blog. It is very affirming. Mine spent all my money however he liked, because even though it wasn’t his money it was his right to spend it. He never worked. I could have had savings. I could have had retirement money. I came into my marriage now with 70,000 in debt (both in credit card debt and money owed and due to maintenance) and no way to pay it. God bless the new husband who likes being the manly breadwinner but doesn’t think it confers him any rights whatsoever. He’s helping me pay all this down while supporting me in creating a new life for myself. I never lived in the kind of poverty you are talking about and what I experienced was awful. I can only imagine what this was like for you. With kids to care for. My God.

  2. #2 by xcwn on July 11, 2012 - 3:57 am

    x_x: Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you find my posts affirming. There need to be some resources for women who are exiting/have exited these types of marriages.

    Yes, the whole retirement thing. I know I’ll never be able to retire. Nor will most women in my situation. I have no idea what I’ll do if my health gives out, and I can’t work.

  3. #3 by A on December 25, 2012 - 6:16 pm

    Reading this was a deja vu experience for me. One difference on my side is that I exited my marriage when I fell pregnant for the first time. I guess my conscience would not allow me to bring up a child in that toxic situation. I’m grateful that I was still young when I left (25 years old) and was able to go back to university and pursue post-graduate studies to carve a career and independence for myself. I regret that my child has no relationship with the father but I get that’s a relatively small price to pay given all the other regrets I may have, had I stayed. Thank you for sharing all of this with us. Your life snippets and the sharp displays of injustice validate so much for me. Please consider compiling all of these posts into a book. I’d love to gift it to young, impressionable minds and older, ignorant (often by choice) minds.

  4. #4 by mary on December 27, 2012 - 11:37 am

    I see this kind of situation all around me. The men who sit in the cafes every evening, smoking shisha and playing dominoes, sleeping late every morning, as I hear their wives up at dawn, quieting fretting children, taking them to school, etc.

    Last summer I mistakenly married a man I thought I knew well, but it turned out that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. He told me he was a school administrator, but it turned out that he hadn’t worked in over a year and was living off the kindness of his two sons, one of whom was working as an engineer in Saudi Arabia and the other as an army medic. It also turned out that he was married to another woman and was still living with her.

    I spent three hellish months married to this man as a second wife before escaping. Yes, escaping – he kept me locked up like a prisoner because he hadn’t bothered to tell his family he married me. When he finally told them, he claimed they were tormenting him beyond all reason, although he still came and went as he pleased, had money to spend and a car to drive, and he would come to the filthy, cockroach-infested flat where he kept me and bring food, drink a cup of tea and leave, claiming his family was watching his every move.

    As I planned my escape, I still couldn’t help noticing that as miserable as he said he was, he still had plenty of time on his hands, never seemed to lack for money, wore nice clothes, did as he pleased, whether he was sleeping all day or hanging around the mosque. His responsibility was to be a “man,” whatever the hell that was, and nobody dared to question whether anything he either did or didn’t do was right or wrong. Not even as it concerned me, his captive wife.

    What was most striking to me was that he was completely unable to empathize with either myself or his other wife as to his treatment of us and how we suffered. He totally believed that as long as we had food and water, his responsibilities to us were fulfilled.

  1. Link Love (24/07/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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